A while ago I heard about interesting research in psychology that discusses the state of optimal experience called flow. This fascinating research, pioneered by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-lee), suggests that the state of flow is characterized by complete mental and physical commitment, clarity of focus, mindfulness and loss of sense of time. Here is an example: try to think of the time when you were so completely immersed in a task/activity, giving it your full undivided attention that the time was sleeping away from you. At the end of it, you probably felt accomplished and deeply fulfilled. This is what the state of flow looks like.
Flow can be experienced when we deeply engage in creative, intellectual or physical activity. Artists, musicians, writers, athletes, chess players, and avid video game players frequently experience the state of intense focus and concentration that allows them to reach their creative/intellectual/physical peaks.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the experience of flow is emotionally satisfying and deeply rewarding; as a result, we seek to repeat it, even in the absence of any external motivators. When applied to teaching and learning, this concept offers interesting lens for thinking about our courses and the kinds of deep learning experiences that we want our students to have. On the how-students-experience-learning spectrum that ranges from surface to deep, I would say that flow is the highest form of deep learning; it is the type of learning that brings the learner to a higher level of intellectual and metacognitive maturity.
For those of us who are interested in understanding what motivates students to learn and inspires passion about learning, the notion of flow can help identify learning conditions and aspects of the course that are likely to produce the deepest form of flow-like learning. After all, if our students get to experience flow in their non-academic passions and pursuits, why can’t they experience it, at least occassionally, in some of their courses? The first step could be taking a closer look at learning activities and assignments in our courses and asking ourselves if any of them are likely to produce the kind of deep engagement and concentration that Csikszentmihalyi discovered among his interviewees.
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